The PBR Story

A Uniflight pleasure craft and a PBR steam side by side. Both boats shared the same 31-foot fiberglass hull and were constructed in Bellingham, Washington. The PBR typified the ability of American manufacturers of the period to quickly develop specialized equipment for the military based on off – the- shelf technology.

This late-model Mark I boat (PBR-130) on the trailer features four finned underwater exhaust pipes for quiet running and two water jet nozzles with gates, shown here in the up position for forward motion. If they were in the down position, covering the nozzle discharge opening, the closed gate would cause water to shoot under the boat, resulting in reversing the boat’s motion.

The PBR’s life began at Hatteras Yacht Company in New Bern, North Carolina, in the spring 1965. Responding to a request for a 30-foot patrol boat, Hatteras’ president, Willis Slane, proposed a 28-foot fiberglass hull powered by water-jet pumps. Water jets would allow the new boat to operate in extremely shallow water. Enthusiastic about the proposal, the Bureau of Ships asked for a prototype. Slane, who had flown transports over the Hump for the Army Air Forces during World War II, gave it his all. Working 24-hour days, his team of builders and suppliers produced a working prototype in just two weeks. Powered by jet pumps manufactured by Indiana Gear Works and fitted with a wooden deck and a speedboat style windshield, the boat achieved speeds of up to 30.5 knots. Sadly, Mr. Slane did not live to see his creation showcased. The night before the demonstration, he died of a heart attack. Sarah Phillips, a long-time employee, had warned her boss to slow down, but Slane, who suffered from diabetes, ignored these warnings, ultimately working himself to death to transform his vision into a working prototype.

Impressed with his boat, the Navy asked for bids for a patrol boat similar to Slane’s beloved prototype. The boats had to achieve speeds of 25 to 30 knots, draw just nine inches of water while cruising, and accommodate a crew of four along with extensive equipment and weaponry, including a twin .50-caliber machine gun in an armored turret forward and a .30-caliber gun (later replaced by a .50-caliber) aft. Making matters even more challenging for the vender, the Navy requested 120 boats in less than six months. United Boatbuilders of Bellingham, Washington, won the contract with the lowest bid. Unlike Hatteras, which was primarily a builder of recreational boats, United had extensive experience working with the Navy, having previously built boats ranging from 15 to 52 feet under Navy contract. The eventual Mark I design incorporated United’s 31-foot fiberglass cruiser hull along with a completely new, Navy-designed superstructure. Twin General Motors’ 216-horsepower diesel engines powered the boat’s water-jet propulsion system, and Raytheon Pathfinder 1900N radar provided enhanced navigation and target acquisition capability. Fully loaded, the boat weighed 14,600 pounds and could reach speeds of up to 25.7 knots—slower than the Hatteras prototype but within the Navy’s specifications for a 25–30-knot boat. The original boats cost $75,000 each ($547,000 in 2014 dollars).

The beauty of the PBR design was its innovative application of off-the-shelf technology to a military role. The commercially manufactured Styrofoam-filled fiberglass hull, for example, would prove remarkably durable in combat. Unlike metal, it did not rust or corrode and was strong enough to withstand beaching. It was also relatively easy to repair. But most remarkable, shaped warheads often failed to trigger on the hulls: lacking a solid target to detonate, they tended to penetrate and exit the boat’s hull without exploding.

The PBR’s jet propulsion system allowed the boat to travel on virtually any waterway in the delta and perform maneuvers impossible for the traditional, propeller-driven boats. A PBR could run over a sandbar or beach itself on dry land without damaging the propulsion system and could stop or turn 180 degrees in its own length. Lieutenant Peter A. Huchthausen, a PBR officer in charge based in My Tho, developed a begrudging respect for the boat’s newfangled capabilities during training at Mare Island, California. “A PBR handled so well at high-speed that the slightest touch of the helm caused immediate and violent reaction. At slow speeds it was an obstinate beast. Successfully handling the PBR at lower speeds required the coxswain to turn the helm exactly the opposite than would be done on a normal boat because of the reverse effect of the nozzles.&helllip; Nevertheless, the ardent small-craft handler could learn in short order to set these bundles of energy smartly alongside a pier, even against the strong river current.” One of Seaman Jerry Hammel’s favorite tricks to play with his PBR was to spin it around on a single axis like a top. “You could hurt somebody if you did not tell them ahead of time what you were going to do. You could throw them off the boat.”

The PBR, though, was not immune to problems. Fully loaded, the Mark I PBR ultimately drew one foot 10.5 inches of water—far more than the nine inches planners had originally requested. The Mark I boats deployed to Vietnam never attained the trial speed of 25 knots. The GM engines, almost uniformly, could not reach speeds greater than 2600–2650rpm (rotations per minute) compared with the trial speed of 2700rpm. Many crews exacerbated the problem by carrying extra engine oil, water, and ammunition. “The boats were way slower than advertised,” lamented Fred McDavitt. “If a crew added a couple extra boxes of .50-cal ammo or carried the patrol officer and/or a Vietnamese policeman, the boat could barely achieve speeds above 12 knots.” At the heart of the PBR’s shortfalls were the Jacuzzi pumps, which greatly reduced the efficiency of the GM engines—so much so that with screws instead of water jets, one Uniflight representative told Fred McDavitt, the boat probably would have achieved speeds in excess of 40 knots.

To make the boats lighter, some crews removed engine covers and other unessential equipment. BM1 Williams often went out on patrol with just three-quarters of a tank of fuel and a minimum ammunition load, figuring that if his boat got into a real jam, the HAL-3 Seawolves could back him up with their helicopters’ extra firepower. Engineman Fireman (ENFN) Clem Alderson, a young River Section 531 sailor from Washington State, increased the maximum speed of Williams’ 105 boat and several others to 30 knots by shimming the governors of the engines so they could run as high as 3,200rpm as opposed to the 2,800 maximum rate set by the factory. Alderson also grafted triangular shaped wedges to the underside of the hull about three quarters of the way aft so that at about 12 knots the boats would “jump” up on the step and achieve speeds up to 25 knots. “Alderson had a surgeon’s touch,” explained McDavitt, “but no matter how fast your PBR could go, it couldn’t outrun a bullet. Speed, such as it was at 30 knots, provided a false sense of security.”

Other problems with the Mark I models included drive shafts that did not stand up well to the rigors of Southeast Asia and fiberglass hulls that were easily damaged during sampan and junk searches. 56 The hulls also developed leaks from pinhole cracks, as well as bullet holes, which caused water to seep into the Styrofoam between the fiberglass layers and slow the boats down. To rectify the problem, the boats had to be removed from the water and quarter-inch holes drilled in the keel to allow the water to drain. These holes, in turn, had to be patched with fiberglass.

Finally, just about every PBR crew complained about the constant need to clean clogged jet pump intakes. The screen over the intake had sharp blades, which cut up most of the water hyacinth and other plants before they entered the pumps, but what little got through this filter could wreak havoc on the propulsion system. When an intake clogged during a high-speed run, the PBR would make an unexpected U-turn known as a “flying 180,” occasionally sending equipment and crewmembers tumbling off the boat. To prevent such mishaps, boat captains had their crews clean the intakes once or twice per patrol, depending on the amount of flotsam on the river. Seaman Jere Beery vividly remembered the unpleasant duty: “The intakes are on the bottom of the PBR and I would have to strip naked, jump in, go underneath the boat, and clean them.” On occasion, a live snake would be caught in an intake. According to Lieutenant Robert P. Fuscaldo, “some of those snakes were pretty angry. We used to try and lift the cover off the pumps and push them out with a broom handle, but sometimes that didn’t work and you had to go underneath and pull them out, so it was interesting.”

Despite these issues, the boat generally performed better than expected given how hastily they were procured. As one Naval Ship Systems Command report explained, the PBR “was not built to current U.S. Navy standards,” nor was it subjected to an “adequate test and evaluation period.” Not surprisingly, a few bugs arose once it deployed in combat, but most were resolved expeditiously in theater. Author Tom Cutler, a veteran of the riverine forces, phrased it more eloquently: “Born in an atmosphere of urgency and tested under actual combat conditions, the PBR could have been a disaster. Instead, it proved to be a fierce little combatant that accomplished its mission.” More than anything else, the PBR demonstrated that off-the-shelf technology could be adapted for military use when circumstances demanded it.

In the blue-water oriented Navy of the Cold War, the PBR was a unique vessel in other ways as well. In contrast to the average Essex-class carrier of the period, with a crew of more than 2,600 men, the average PBR carried just four men: a boat captain, an engineman, a gunner’s mate, and a seaman. Initially, boat captains were junior officers and chief petty officers, but as the war progressed, a select group of first- and second-class petty officers also was given the opportunity to command these boats. In no other Navy command or ship were enlisted sailors given so much responsibility. Every crewmember cross-trained to perform every role on the boat, and during combat everyone was a gunner. For enlisted men accustomed to performing highly specialized work on large ships, the jack-of-all-trades nature of the PBR experience made them feel like sailors of yesteryear, and the danger of the rivers led many to think of themselves as a an elite group—a status unofficially conferred by the black berets they adopted as part of their uniform. “It was a unique experience to be on a 31-foot boat in the middle of a country where everyone wanted to kill you,” recalled Jere Beery. “You really develop a since of camaraderie.” Beery’s African-American shipmate, Seaman Harold Sherman, claimed many years later that it was the only assignment in his entire Navy career where he did not experience some form of racism.63 McDavitt agreed that PBR service was unique but challenged its “elite” status. “A lot of people ended up in riverine warfare who had been ‘volunteered’ from other commands,” he said. “We were no different from any other ship in the Navy.”

Patrols lasted up to 18 hours and covered distances of up to 35 miles from a base. For chow, sailors subsisted mainly on canned rations heated on the engine manifolds. To liven up the menu, some crews purchased kerosene camp stoves to prepare seafood and vegetables purchased from the locals. Eating Vietnamese food, however, was not without risk. Bacteria on unwashed produce could easily send a sailor running to the stern of the boat to defecate. Signalman 2nd Class Roderick Davis of River Section 512 described this act, known as “hanging ten,” as practically an Olympic event. “One had to step over the transom, drop trou, squat down on the flat stern board, hold on while hanging out, and finally, wipe while holding on precariously with one hand. Thence step back inboard. It took courage, skill, and balance and you could get points at the end of the exercise for a good dismount.” For the PBR sailor, privacy was the first casualty of war.

PBRs generally patrolled in two-boat sections. The main mission of the patrols during the day was inspecting river craft for contraband and checking IDs. One PBR would approach a contact at an angle, which allowed all weapons to concentrate on the target, and the crew would conduct the search while the other PBR stood at a distance to provide cover. All searches were to be conducted midstream as far from the shoreline as possible. Between 2100 and 0600, the patrols enforced night curfews and on occasion ambushed Viet Cong river crossings. Interdiction, in short, was the major objective of Task Force 116. The February 1966 Game Warden Operation Order stated that PBRs would not participate in shore assaults with the VNN River Force, nor would they normally conduct patrols in waterways and canals off the major rivers. If ambushed from the shore, the operation order advised PBRs to make a speedy withdrawal. “River Patrol Force Boats,” it noted, “are not designed, armed, or armored to stand and fight against superior firepower in the manner of VNN RAG craft.” Air strikes or artillery support could always be called in against the target following a tactical withdrawal.

The initial rules of engagement as promulgated in the February 1966 operation order allowed PBRs to stop any South Vietnam-flagged vessel (or one with no flag) to demand identification or search the vessel. Since PBRs did not have time to search every sampan and junk on a river, they often randomly chose their quarry. If a sampan failed to heed orders to come to, warning shots could be fired, but a sampan could not be engaged directly until its occupants fired first on the PBR. The staff officers who devised the operation order understood the counterinsurgency nature of the Game Warden mission and wanted to avoid alienating the local populace through the use of excessive force. Nevertheless, the inherent conservatism of these rules of engagement often put the PBR crews at a distinct disadvantage in combat. As Peter Huchthausen wrote, they “gave the enemy the luxury of choosing when and where to engage,” and whittled away “our advantage in firepower … to an easy parity with the Viet Cong.”

Bored with the endless searches of sampans and junks, some PBR sailors sought out firefights either by setting up night ambushes or by venturing up some of the smaller rivers and canals in the delta. Signalman 1st Class Chester B. Smith, a boat captain and patrol officer with River Section 531, explicitly favored night patrols because of the curfew. “We had full authority on the river after sunset,” he said in an interview. “If we saw something moving, we could go after it. You could not necessarily shoot them, but you could go after them because they were fair game. The philosophy was that if you could get them in a compromising situation, they would want to shoot. If they did, we could then return fire. There was nothing there that could outrun us unless they had a tremendous jump on us.” On occasion, this type of aggressiveness led to spectacular successes, but tragedies also occurred when some patrol officers were too bold. On large rivers the PBR’s maneuverability and firepower made them difficult targets, but in narrow canals or near the shore, the advantage rapidly shifted to the enemy. As critical as some sailors were of the TF 116 Operation Order, it was designed to minimize risk and maximize the impact of the River Patrol in stopping infiltration.

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